Apple, Ports

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Fall 2016 has brought two big Apple hardware announcements. The first was the iPhone 7 which lost it’s headphone jack. The second was a new MacBook Pro line which lost basically everything in favour of USB-C ports.

I feel partially guilty for my support of the iPhone 7. When rumours came out of losing the headphone port I was pretty instantly angry. I am a bit of a headphone geek and own many pairs. I love headphones, I love how they all sound different. Sometimes I’m in the mood for open headphones, closed headphones. They’re universal devices, I can plug them into my phone, my laptop, my desktop, my 3DS, my PS4 controller even. Tried, trusted and true. Wireless headphones don’t sound great (BT is lossy in all implementations, though good enough for car acoustics for example), and iPhone specific “lightning” headphones are dumb. I continued to be angry and then went on to order a pair of the iPhone 7 Plus. Why? Well my carrier subsidizes more of the phone than I’d save going BYOD so I needed something new. The waterproofing, wider color gamut display and the incredible dual-camera setup were very compelling. But yes, they absolutely took the headphone port away and offered nothing better in return. (Plenty of phones have smaller bezels, are waterproof and retain the headphone port) It’s not courage, it’s locking people into rubbish wireless earbuds (which have been delayed even). Instead I bought a pile of the headphone adapters and stuck them on all of my frequently used headphones, and an extra one to sit in my backpack for travel emergencies. I didn’t vote against the headphone port with my wallet, which gives me mixed feelings.

Next up was the new MacBook Pro line. The MacBook Pro is very near and dear to my heart. It’s been my primary work device for many many years. They’re very reliable (at least in my usage), feature the best keyboard and trackpad available in a laptop (IMO), plenty of power and memory in the 15” (quad core/16GB standard) and they’re extremely durable if you’re a heavy traveller like I am. I’ve dropped 15” Retina MacBook Pros many times without any sort of ill effect. I’ve had minor liquid spills. They just keep on working. The SD card slot is useful, especially since I’ve moved away from Canon and CF cards. The USB ports are great, though I’d honestly like a third. The HDMI port is great for projecting in virtually any conference room. When Apple removed the optical drive from the MacBooks it felt like the right move, I hadn’t used optical media in quite a long time already.

To be fair, the MacBook Pro had not seen a real refresh in quite a long time. Apple had to bring some improvements. Well the newly unveiled MacBook Pro was much thinner (even thinner than the aging MacBook Air) and now featured a touch bar across the top of the keyboard. I’m actually quite a fan of the touch bar. The loss of escape will effect me as a vi user, but a virtual escape is probably fine. Plus the fact that you get contextual buttons (i.e. for things like Photoshop where I barely can remember hot keys due to infrequent use) is great. I love that it’s multi touch and full color. Plus OLED is amazingly beautiful, especially when color accuracy isn’t an issue. Great enhancement, and the demos for things like Final Cut Pro really sold it.

I would have been happy if they’d introduced a 32GB SKU, as if it’s my own money 32GB guarantees 5 years of usage. 16GB may be a bit small for “Pro” usage in 2021. (i.e. when 8K video will be a thing, general bloat increases over time, etc) Unfortunately I believe LPDDR3 doesn’t go beyond 16GB, unlike vanilla DDR3. Intel really didn’t have next-gen chips ready for these new MacBooks, hence no DDR4, no 32GB, etc. This is a bit disappointing as it wasn’t that long ago Apple was getting exclusive next-gen chips from Intel ala the original gen 1 MacBook Air. At the very least it’s probably worth waiting for the surely impending Fall 2017 refresh which will get 7th gen Intel CPUs and LPDDR4 that don’t exist today.

But Apple did make it a lot thinner, and that meant making some changes. First up was going to a keyboard similar to that of the “Retina MacBook”. These are little butterfly keys with much less travel than the previous Retina MacBook Pro keys. I actually really like the travel of keys I have today, and have not been impressed with that of the MacBook. I’m told some people get used to it, but it feels like a step backwards to me, all in the name of thinness. Next up of course is the missing ports. The biggest one for me is mag-safe. Mag-safe was an early MacBook invention, basically a break away coord for power. Absolutely brilliant. Why nobody had thought of it first, I’ll never know. It has saved me many many times from having laptop accidents, I’ll admit I’m clumsy and tend to use my laptop in all sorts of places other than an office desk. Losing this is a big step backwards. Yes, there are third party magsafe dongles you can attach to a USB-C port. But, yet more dongles to buy and carry. Next up is losing traditional USB ports. This is pretty annoying. Literally nobody owns USB-C memory sticks. As of release, they’re incredibly rare. Does that now mean you need a dongle for using all of the memory sticks you own / want to have interoperability with other more common computers? Have an Apple Thunderbolt display or some Thunderbolt storage? Need a different dongle. Wan’t to plug your brand new iPhone 7 into your brand new MacBook Pro? That’s a $25 USD cable you will need to buy. Want HDMI output? USB-C is still a world of dongles and adapters. Literally a pile of them for a weeks worth of standard usage for me.

The iPhone situation brings up yet another big gripe with Apple’s usage of USB-C. USB-C would make a heck of a lot more sense if it were somehow a unified Apple connector. But iPhones still use Lightning and likely will for the foreseeable future. It would really cheese people off to do yet another connector change, with memories of the dock connector not that distant. If I could charge my iPad, MacBook and iPhone with the same coord I’d certainly be a lot more impressed with the move to USB-C only on the MacBooks.

USB-C is actually super cool. It’s a fantastic standard. The mechanical connector is great. The current USB 3.1 standard is more than fast enough for most uses. The “alternate mode” support for HDMI, Thunderbolt and DisplayPort over the USB-C cabling is great, however probably very confusing for customers. Most but not all USB-C laptops support the DisplayPort over USB-C Alternate Mode. This means you get full bandwidth DisplayPort 1.3, and none of the CPU load associated with USB2/USB3 video adapters. It’s USB-C in cabling only. All of the Macs support this. Thunderbolt over USB-C Alternate Mode support is a little worse though. The new MacBook Pros support this, but not the “Retina MacBook”. So consumers will have Thunderbolt devices they will try and plug into the MacBook only for it to do nothing. I can see this being very confusing to end-users, especially since it’s not like the ports are labeled based on their capability.

All of this begs the question. Why do this? Why did the MacBook Pro need to become thinner? Why could it not have stayed the same and gained battery power? This is a question I’ve also had with iPhones as I honestly believe the iPhone 6 was slightly too thin to be comfortable in my hands. Give me thicker with more battery power, any day of the week. The existing MacBook Pro was plenty thin. Who are these people complaining about device thickness in 2016? I’m sure I’ll end up with a new MacBook Pro at one point, but I certainly don’t want to be an early adopter, not until USB-C is more widely used. Until then it’s just a bunch of dongles to carry everywhere. Heck, why couldn’t they have included at least a spattering of these dongles (say HDMI, mini Display Port and classic USB 3) in the box? The price point is pretty high after all, and I believe my original gen 1 MacBook Air came with the USB ethernet which they had just freshly removed. Would at least feel like they aren’t just asking consumers to spend an extra $100-150 on dongles on Day 1.

I love Apple hardware, I really do. I’ve used it off and on since 1989. Please stop making things thinner at the expense of usability. Apple apologists also need to stop letting Apple off the hook for anti-consumer behavior. Had the new MacBook Pro been just added 2 USB-C ports and the Touch Bar (and maybe a 7th gen Intel / 32GB version) I’d definitely buy one. For now I’m going to ride out the existing Retina MacBook Pro line and hope it gets another CPU bump before Apple retires it for good.